By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
The team that ran the most technologically advanced presidential campaign in modern history is finding it difficult to adapt that model to government. WhiteHouse.gov, envisioned as the primary vehicle for President Obama to communicate with the online masses, has been overwhelmed by challenges that staffers did not foresee and technological problems they have yet to solve.
Obama, for example, would like to send out mass e-mail updates on presidential initiatives, but the White House does not have the technology in place to do so. The same goes for text messaging, another campaign staple.
Beyond the technological upgrades needed to enable text broadcasts, there are security and privacy rules to sort out involving the collection of cellphone numbers, according to Obama aides, who acknowledge being caught off guard by the strictures of government bureaucracy.
"This is uncharted territory," said Macon Phillips, White House director of new media, which was a midlevel position in previous administrations but has been boosted by Obama to a "special assistant to the president."
Phillips, 30, a self-described geek who grew up in Alabama and worked at a D.C.-based online consulting company before joining the campaign, has been trying to manage high expectations that the Obama administration will run the most accessible, transparent, Web-savvy government in history. He feels the weight of carrying out that bold ambition -- and hears the criticism.
Hours before the $787 billion economic stimulus package cleared Congress, Obama's online team posted the legislation on WhiteHouse.gov. The team recognized that many Americans would not only want to read the bill, which runs 1,071 pages, they would want to comment on it. On WhiteHouse.gov, however, users were asked to limit their "comments, thoughts and ideas" to 500 characters, a restriction that didn't go over too well.
"Absurd," responded Ellen Miller of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which calls for more government transparency and interactivity online.
Within 36 hours, Phillips and his team had reacted to public disappointment and upped the character count from 500 to 5,000. "It's an improvement," said Phillips, who called for patience.
He noted that WhiteHouse.gov has a blog and a YouTube channel, both firsts for a president. Also, Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Silicon Valley executive who helped start Google Finance, recently joined the team as director of citizen participation.
The online unit, which numbers at least seven, is larger than any White House has had, but it is not configured to replicate the campaign's work.
"WhiteHouse.gov," Phillips said, "is not like BarackObama.com or Change.gov. We're not running a campaign anymore. To us here, WhiteHouse.gov is not just a Web site. The new programs that we will roll out are more than just URLs. They are new ways to engage with citizens. Stay tuned."
Phillips called the site "an ongoing experiment."
Wherever this experiment leads, what's certain is that, in the same way Franklin D. Roosevelt harnessed the power of radio and John F. Kennedy leveraged the reach of television to directly communicate with the public, the BlackBerry-carrying Obama wants to use the Internet to redefine the relationship between the presidency and the people.
Weeks before he was sworn into office, the president-elect began posting video of his weekly radio address on YouTube, drawing comments from the positive and insightful to the negative and unprintable. His first address as president, posted Jan. 24 on the White House YouTube channel, has been viewed more than 1 million times. Subsequent videos on the channel, however, haven't been watched nearly as much. Videos featuring Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., for example, have each generated fewer than 25,000 views.
In the first blog post on WhiteHouse.gov, Phillips listed the site's top three priorities: "communication," "participation" and, the buzzword of the online political sphere, "transparency." The post said all non-emergency legislation will be posted on the blog for five days, allowing the public to review and comment before Obama signs the bills.
But the site has broken its own promise. Just hours after Congress approved a renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, extending health-care coverage to 11 million low-income children, Obama signed the bill into law. The news site PolitiFact.com, which tracks Obama's campaign promises, asserted that the five-day rule is the only pledge that the president has broken outright so far.
Outside entities such as ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism site, are carefully watching everything that WhiteHouse.gov does. ProPublica recently launched ChangeTracker, which sends out alerts when there are additions or deletions on WhiteHouse.gov, whether a blog post or an executive order. Already, there have been delays in posting some executive orders on WhiteHouse.gov.
As Phillips and his team are discovering, Obama is being held accountable for everything he's posting (and not posting) on his site. On his first full day as president, he issued a memo on WhiteHouse.gov saying that the administration's yet-unnamed chief technology officer will be charged with writing an "open government" directive that will outline how agencies and departments in the federal government will be more transparent and collaborative.
Working with the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, the technology chief has 120 days to come up with the directive. With the clock ticking, the Sunlight Foundation has launched Our Open Government List, where users can submit and vote on ideas for the directive.
"There are definitely some kinks that need to be worked out," said John D. Podesta, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and co-chaired Obama's transition. "But for the most part, what WhiteHouse.gov and other sites that the White House will launch promises is a relationship that benefits both sides. It's a two-way street. It's not just what the White House tells the public; it's also what the public tells the White House."
Added Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on presidential communication at the University of Pennsylvania: "Obama and his team mastered the art of connecting newly involved individuals to his campaign. Now they're trying to master the process of connecting those individuals to their government. It won't happen overnight, but it will ultimately transform presidential communication."
The U.S. government operates at least 20,000 individual Web sites, and WhiteHouse.gov is arguably the most well known. Born in 1994 during the Clinton administration, the site first was little more than a glossy online brochure.
The site has evolved as the Internet has. Not only did it come to chronicle what the president did on a particular day, it also highlighted his policy positions and began embracing Web 2.0 technologies. Visitors to President George W. Bush's WhiteHouse.gov could view daily photos, watch videos of news briefings, download podcasts from iTunes and share transcripts via RSS feeds.
Still, there have been limitations. For some time, the site was not permitted to link to third-party sites whose URLs did not end in .gov or .mil, according to David Almacy, Bush's Internet director from 2005 to 2007.
Some restrictions persist. For example, to comply with the Presidential Records Act, which mandates the preservation of all White House written communication, a Web page must be archived whenever it's modified, slowing down a typically quick process of building new pages and refreshing the site.
And there have been some surprises. Phillips didn't know that officers from the White House Military Office shoot, edit and archive the White House's videos. He has now hired a video director.
In recent weeks, Obama's team has introduced more online features (such as a jobs link where people can apply for positions within the administration) and has launched new sites (such as Recovery.gov, where Americans can track how their tax dollars are being spent in the stimulus package).
But it was several days before Obama's WhiteHouse.gov posted transcripts of news briefings, and unlike the blogs on BarackObama.com and Change.gov, the presidential hub's blog doesn't allow comments. Phillips said he's working on that.
"A lot more questions need to be addressed: Where do you insert the public comment portion in a bill? Do you start five days before the president signs it? Or do you start the moment Congress passes it?" asked Andrew Rasiej, founder of the political-tech site Personal Democracy Forum. He served as an adviser to the Obama transition's technology, innovation and government reform group. "As of right now, the comment section is like a black hole. Of course it's not enough by the standards of the Internet as we know it today."